Illustration of genital herpes virus particles transmit without being sexually active

How Do You Get Genital Herpes Without Being Sexually Active?

Written on October 30, 2023 by Amy Harris, MPH, RN. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), while a reality of being sexually active, do not have to mean the end of a healthy and pleasurable sex life. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is one of the more easily transmitted and, therefore, one of the most common STIs. However, HSV is one STI you can get, even without being sexually active. Read on to learn more about HSV transmission and what you can do to protect yourself and your partners.

What Is Herpes?

Herpes is an infection caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV causes sores or blisters on your mouth (oral herpes) and/or genitals (vulva, vagina, butt cheeks, anus, thighs, penis, and scrotum (genital herpes). When herpes appears on the skin, it is called an outbreak. Herpes does not usually cause serious health problems.[1]

There are two types of the Herpes Simplex Virus — HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause oral and genital infections with nearly the same symptoms [2]. There is no cure for either HSV-1 or HSV-2 — both are a type of lifelong infection, although the number of outbreaks tends to decrease the longer you have the virus.[3]

How Common Is Herpes?

Herpes is a common virus, just like the cold virus. Over half (50-80 percent) of Americans have oral herpes.[1] About 1 out of 6 Americans have genital herpes.[1] More women than men have genital herpes.[2] So, there is a pretty good chance you know someone living with herpes.

Let’s Talk About Sex … And Herpes

Not to get technical here, but the spread of herpes and your risk of infection depends upon what type of sex you are having and how many partners you have. People describe many behaviors as “sex,” so let’s break it down. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can spread through [4]:

  1. Oral sex
  2. Anal sex
  3. Penetrative vaginal intercourse

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 enter your body through your skin and mucous membranes. The thinner membranes on your mouth and genitals are common entry points for HSV.[3]

Most HSV-1 outbreaks are oral herpes (often called cold sores). HSV is spread chiefly through saliva. Over time, more and more cases of HSV-1 are being seen on or around the genitals (including butt cheeks, scrotum, inner thighs, and labia) in addition to around the mouth and lips.[5] HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes (outbreaks on or around the genitals).[5]

Remember that a person infected with HSV always has the virus in their body. So, even if they don’t have any sores or HSV lesions, they may still have virus particles on and in their skin. These viral particles could infect you if they come in contact with your mucous membranes, an open cut, or a rash on your skin. Shedding HSV virus particles without any symptoms is called asymptomatic shedding.[1,4]

HSV-2 spreads most commonly through asymptomatic shedding through the genital tract — meaning having anal or vaginal intercourse with a partner infected with HSV-2, but may not have any visible sores or other symptoms.[3]

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How Do You Get HSV Without Being Sexually Active?

While HSV spreads most commonly through sexual contact, there are other ways to get HSV without having oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse. They are [2,4,6]:

  • Transmission from a pregnant mother to her baby during a vaginal delivery
  • Kissing
  • Mutual masturbating or intimate touching of mucus membranes, hands, mouth, genitals, and skin
  • Sharing unclean sex toys

Catching HSV from objects such as shared bed linens, clothing, towels, toilet seats, eating utensils, shared cups/glasses, or public spas is nearly impossible. Unlike the cold virus, which can be spread by touching dirty door handles or sharing a cup with a sick buddy, the herpes virus is more fragile and cannot survive for long outside of warm, moist areas.[7]

Tips For Avoiding An HSV Infection – Whether You Are Sexually Active Or Not

Herpes can be a tough STI to avoid, given that people can shed the virus without any symptoms. That means someone could have herpes and not even know it. Never mind the stigma surrounding herpes, making it challenging to have sex-positive conversations with prospective sexual partners.

As with all STIs, practicing safe oral, vaginal, and anal sex when and if you decide to have sex can help reduce your chances of getting an STI. Getting regular sexual health checkups with testing and an assessment of your risk factors is added reassurance that Everlywell is happy to provide through online STD consultations. Other ways to reduce your chances of getting HSV are [1,4,6,8,9]:

  1. Wash your hands frequently (a good idea for staying healthy in general).
  2. Practice safe sex with condoms and dental dams. Wash sex toys between partners and after each use.
  3. Talk with any new partners before any intimate contact about their sexual health history. Not sure where to start? Download Everlywell’s helpful tip sheet with conversation starters.
  4. Be on the lookout for any suspicious sores, cuts, or blisters on you or your partner.
  5. Have regular STD testing if you or your partner has multiple partners, you have a change in partner, or you have additional risk factors for STIs.
  6. If you have HSV, don’t touch active sores in your mouth or genitals. If you do, wash your hands as soon as possible afterward.
  7. If you or your partner have active sores (regardless of location), avoid any intimate contact (including kissing and masturbation) until the sores heal completely.

Stress-Free Testing And Treatment For Herpes With Everlywell

While it isn’t curable, many people never experience any herpes symptoms or have an outbreak. That is why it is important to know your herpes testing options if you are sexually active. If you or your partner do test positive for herpes, know that there are now multiple treatment options available to help manage outbreaks.[9]

Treatment for your HSV has never been easier now that Everlywell offers genital herpes online treatment for those meeting qualifications. With online STD consultations and treatment from the privacy of your own home, and at-home STD screening tests to put your mind at ease, Everlywell makes living with herpes so much easier — because looking after your sexual health and well-being is just as important as remembering to take vitamins or go to the doctor for regular health check-ups, understanding how online herpes treatment works is vital and Everlywell is here to help.

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  1. Herpes 1 and 2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed October 8, 2023.
  2. Detailed STD Facts. CDC. Published July 22, 2021. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  3. Schiffer JT, Mayer BT, Fong Y, Swan DA, Wald A. Herpes simplex virus-2 transmission probability estimates based on quantity of viral shedding. J R Soc Interface. 2014;11(95):20140160. Published 2014 Mar 26. doi:10.1098/rsif.2014.0160.
  4. Living With Herpes. Planned Parenthood. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  5. Ayoub HH, Chemaitelly H, Abu-Raddad LJ. Characterizing the transitioning epidemiology of herpes simplex virus type 1 in the USA: model-based predictions. BMC Med. 2019;17(1):57. Published 2019 Mar 11. doi:10.1186/s12916-019-1285-x
  6. Genital Herpes. NHS Inform. Published December 2, 2022. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  7. Bardell D. Survival of herpes simplex virus type 1 in saliva and tap water contaminating some common objects. Microbios. 1993;74(299):81-87.
  8. Show me the science – why wash your hands? CDC. Published May 4, 2023. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  9. STI Treatment Guidelines, 2021 – Screening Recommendations and Considerations Referenced in Treatment Guidelines and Original Sources. CDC. Published June 6, 2022. Accessed October 10, 2023.
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